School Hopes 'Recess Coach' Will Pay Off in Classroom

Photo: School Hopes Recess Coach Will Pay Off in Classroom: Elementary School in Tough Arkansas Neighborhood Brings in Coach Coop to Give Structure to Playtime

In the orderly halls of Stephens Elementary in Little Rock, Ark., principal Sharon Brooks steers a tight ship: Students dressed in khaki-and-blue uniforms quietly weave between classrooms in single file.

But every day at 12:30 p.m., when recess rolls around, all of that well-defined order goes out the window.

"When they hit the playground, their behavior just goes in reverse, and we have some trouble controlling things out there," said Brooks.

The Child Whisperer
The Child Whisperer

For many of its 460 students, Stephens Elementary is a sanctuary -- an oasis of calm in the middle of Little Rock's gang-ridden 12th Street neighborhood.

"It can sometimes get real bad over here," said Alex Hamilton, a security officer at the school. "I'd say that 90 percent of our kids have been exposed to some sort of violence."

But the school's recess discipline problems are hardly unique. According to a Gallup poll released earlier this year, 89 percent of discipline-related incidents at schools happen either during lunch or recess.

Now, Stephens Elementary is getting a major "recess rehab." Charles Cooper, who's known as "Coach Coop," is a recess coach with Playworks, a nonprofit that specializes in bringing order to the playground by teaching kids how to play.

Cooper came to Stephens for a weeklong trial run to convince staff and students that when push comes to shove, healthy, productive play is still possible.

"We'll break it in there little by little," Cooper said. "The first two days you're building rapport with the staff and the students. Not everybody is onboard immediately, some people have to see it first."

Before Rehab: The Problem at Stephens

Hamilton, the school security officer, is responsible for reining in chaos and breaking up any fights on the blacktop.

"It could quickly escalate to kids getting upset with each other," said Hamilton. "And it could go bad real quick. Sometimes they will bring the problems at home to school. It's just part of the environment."

A bad recess follows kids back into the classroom, said teacher Steven Helmick.

"Because something has happened outside that has caused them to be frustrated the rest of the day... [I am] not getting anything else out of them," Helmick said. "They're done."

In the last year alone, there were 108 suspensions at Stephens -- sometimes as many as seven a week -- and almost all of them stem from playground fights.

The Playworks Approach to Recess

Schools from Los Angeles to Boston pay $23,000 a year to contract out recess to Playworks. The idea behind it all is that recess can have a positive impact on academic achievement.

"We're not going to be satisfied until all 60,000 public elementary schools have somebody who really cares and is making sure that kids are playing every day," said Jill Vialet, who started Playworks 14 years ago in Oakland, Calif.

Vialet describes her mission as restoring "the culture of play," primarily at low-income schools.

"When I was kid growing up, we played every day, after school, and all summer long, unsupervised," said Vialet. "So when we came to school and went outside to recess, we knew how to pick teams, we knew how to self-handicap to keep the game going. And kids don't bring those skills with them to recess anymore, in any socio-economic class."

For kids in neighborhoods like 12th Street, the world is sometimes just not safe.

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